a guest post by Morgan McMinn
Research libraries and archives are often thought of in terms of their physical existence but those misconceptions were challenged by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. The Folger Shakespeare Library is more than the physical space it inhabits and the researchers working within it. The library is also a digital space available to scholars and enthusiasts of early modern texts, which is an environment open for collaboration.
When COVID-19 struck in 2020, the digital landscape of the Folger was ripe for people with suddenly more flexible schedules and desperate for contact. In response to the pandemic, the Folger began offering online Zoom groups for paleography. Nicole Winard, a Folger docent, leads one of those groups. Originally pulled together in June 2020, Nicole runs a group of early modern English transcribers that transcends time and space to provide what docent Carrol Kindel describes as a “real service to the Folger.” Carrol characterizes our group as a “delightful mix of docent friends and scholars steeped in the life and literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” We have had guests from Germany, regulars from England, and graduate students, academics and enthusiasts from across continental North America—and Nicole gently and patiently guides all of us through the various hands and collections of the Folger.
With Nicole’s guidance, groupmate Gail Weigl describes how together we have “learned how to properly tag the texts [in Dromio], a process that consistently provides new challenges, even to the most sophisticated and experienced among us.” Gail’s comment highlights how our collaborative effort is more than reading texts, but also mastering together the Folger’s tools for transcription.
On top of reading and learning texts and tools, “the class has introduced [us] to new colleagues who uniformly cooperate and encourage one another in a non-competitive atmosphere completely dedicated to unpacking the texts.” Our projects range from John Ward’s diaries to the tragedy of Walter Raleigh to the trial of Essex and Southampton to the piping hot international news in the Newdigate newsletters and the interesting recipes in early modern cookbooks. We have also conquered the glorious hand of the Feathery Scribe and dived into the writings of Nathaniel Bacon and the “hurried hand” of Martin Man as well as voyaged into different waters in our small groups in which we have questioned the guilt of Richard III and the complexity of the French Wars of Religion.
We have been gifted with visits from Heather Wolfe on early modern correspondence and letter-locking, Elisabeth Chaghafi on printing from the type-setter’s perspective and a young Ward’s reading of Sidney’s Arcadia, and Owen Williams’s visit in September 2020 to discuss those pesky “mediascules”, those nasty little letters that are not quite miniscules or majiscules.
Some of us, like docent Nancy Howard, needed something to fill the void left by the COVID shutdowns. When the museum she volunteered at locked down, she found herself “seeking an intellectual challenge [at the Folger] but ended up finding much more than that. [She] found camaraderie, congeniality, collaboration, as well as the puzzle-solving mental challenge [she] was seeking.” Gail was drawn to the group from a similar desire to Nancy’s as she found herself “pulled into a discipline and challenge made to order for a person who loves puzzles and history.”
Our English groupmate, Tim Underhill, found the group rather serendipitously through a Google search. He was “amazed at how straightforward that technology proved to be in enabling such participation (as well as being impressed by the Dromio transcription tool) and rather buoyed up by the experience” of using digital tools. Tim’s experience reflects what many in the group felt: wary of doing work online, relying on technology, and meeting through Zoom—which demonstrates another aspect of online collaboration through the Folger: we are not only learning the Folger’s collections and online tools, as well as secretary hand; we increased our digital literacy too.
My introduction to the group was rather round-about. After the Folger workshop I was set to attend in summer 2020 was postponed, the participants were invited to attend an online ‘Practical Paleography’ workshop hosted by Heather Wolfe. Through that workshop, I was welcomed to attend Nicole’s Tuesday group where I have been every Tuesday ever since.
Nancy recalls entering the world of scribes of the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century and having to learn their alphabets. They began with short manuscripts, which at the time were difficult and overwhelming. Nancy recounts a visit from Heather Wolfe and “how she quickly skimmed aloud a secretary hand passage as if it were written in contemporary English. After she finished, she said to our class, ‘Soon you will be able to do that.’” A year later, and we can.
For Tim, he remembers that the “social dimension became so important and…worked really well: there was a sense of group improvement and growth in skill, knowledge and confidence too as the weeks went by – the sense that it had become a collective endeavour.” Tim’s reflection highlights the significance of our work, that it is collective.
At the heart of our class is a fundamental devotion to collaboration. Not a single transcription operates alone in our group, every week for over a year multiple faces stare at the same document and work through it together. For Tim that means that, “there wasn’t a single participant in any of the sessions [he] attended from whom at some stage [he] didn’t learn something, or who didn’t produce a reading of some tricky word, phrase or detail that [he] realised was better than [his] initial transcription . So, while [he’d] like to think skills in being able to read secretary hands gradually improved, simultaneously the experience made [him] a lot less dangerously complacent about them!”
The collaborative aspect of our group has made us better scholars, but more importantly it has made us better listeners. Through our work together we have had to pay attention to each other as we read our lines and cross checked our own transcriptions. If we came across a word (as we often do) that we had discrepancies on, we would debate, persuade, research, and argue our way to a consensus–we have to be open to each others’ interpretations of the text down to the minum.
These discussions required us to become intimate with the hands of the scribe and the language of the era. Tim reflects that, “the possibility that our individual transcriptions were not an end in themselves, that they might in turn help inform further work on the documents in the collation process was a real motivation too. [He] thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the hands we worked on… Perhaps one of the most valuable benefits of joining this group has been the way in which the process of working on the transcriptions gave [him] a respect for and insight into the documents themselves and their scribes.”
Gail comments that as a historian, “reading the transcriptions of the trials of Sir Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Essex brought into high focus a sense of authenticity, immediacy, and place.” She is “consistently impressed with the intellectual heft and thirst for knowledge demonstrated by everyone.” That drive she describes is noticeable in the small group projects we selected in Collection of Political and Parliamentary Documents, ca. 1550-ca. 1650. In their group, Nancy and Gail, along with groupmates Diana Darwin, Carrol Kindel, and John Finedore, tackled Sir William Cornwallis’s twenty-plus-page paradox, “A discourse written in praise of King Richard the Third,” written in 1612. Together, they transcribed “the earliest surviving essay attempting a defense of Richard III. As a paradox, he uses his rhetorical skills to defend something which everyone believes clearly indefensible.”
In their group, they not only transcribed the document but also conducted research on Cornwallis and Richard III to expand their knowledge beyond Shakespeare’s play. Upon completion, they shared the document with the Tuesday class as well as their research, which allowed Gail to flex her historian muscles and to challenge us on our perceptions of the much vilified King of England. As Nancy observed, we now “know another Richard III thanks to paleography.”
Many of us came to our group seeking an intellectual challenge and growth through early modern English paleography. What we had not expected was that we would learn so much more than handwriting. We gained insights into history and explored the interpersonal relationships of families, friends, and politicians. We have given presentations and held debates.
And we have done it all together.